The WMU-Cooley Law Review hosted its 31st Annual Distinguished Brief Award ceremony on July 21, 2016, at the Country Club of Lansing. This unique event celebrates the best of Michigan’s practicing bar, formally recognizing authors of the three most scholarly briefs filed with the Michigan Supreme Court in each Court term.
Professor Mark Cooney, the Law Review’s faculty adviser and the event emcee, noted that this award reflects the importance of effective writing and the school’s longstanding commitment to teaching and celebrating effective writing.
“You’ve got to persuade your reader with the brief. And the judges and court staff who read appellate briefs are swamped with briefs on every imaginable issue, so it’s crucial to write clearly and concisely, with strong organization. And for Michigan Supreme Court briefs, writers must clearly articulate what the proper rule should be going forward.”
After the event, Cooney, who was an appellate specialist in his practice days, mentioned that WMU-Cooley’s writing courses “have always emphasized clarity and all the seemingly little techniques that writers must master to achieve clarity. If the brief isn’t clear,” he said, “you can’t possibly persuade your reader. Confusion and frustration aren’t good recipes for persuasion.”
The Law Review was thrilled to have so many pillars of the Michigan legal community in attendance and appreciated their words of wisdom. Courtney Sierra, Law Review’s editor, shared that “This experience has shown me just how vital excellent writing can be in our legal system and that striving for exceptional writing is a key to being successful in my new career.”
She also offered her thanks to the attendees and “to my Law Review colleagues — especially Jon Paasch, Zach Green, Lyndsey Hof, Nick Langenkamp, and Shiela Burke — for helping me plan the event.” She noted that the Law Review will publish each winning brief in an upcoming volume.
The Law Review’s special guest was Justice Richard H. Bernstein, who gave an eloquent, heartfelt introduction of the evening’s keynote speaker, Justice Stephen J. Markman. Attendees were captivated by Justice Bernstein’s positivity and his gifts as an orator.
Justice Markman’s thoughtful keynote speech focused on the importance of careful, thorough briefs. He highlighted the need for well-organized and well-written briefs not only for effective advocacy for clients, but for helping the Supreme Court appreciate why the case is important to Michigan’s larger jurisprudence. He added a light-hearted note about how even the finest briefs cannot ensure victory, recalling that although he’d voted for two out of the three award winners this time, at a past dinner he’d seen three winning briefs that had not garnered his vote in the cases.
During the ceremony, Professor Cooney thanked the panel of judges who evaluated the briefs and selected the winners. He told the audience that the list looked like “a judicial all-star team — perhaps our finest group yet, including veteran judges from every level of Michigan’s court system: Honorable Brian K. Zahra, Honorable Bridget Mary McCormack, Honorable Rosemarie E. Aquilina, Honorable Patricia D. Gardner, Honorable Kirsten Frank Kelly, Honorable Kathleen Jansen , Honorable Patrick M. Meter, Honorable Christopher M. Murray, Honorable Michael J. Riordan, and Honorable Paul J. Denenfeld.” He thanked them for “the generous gift of their time and expertise.”
The Distinguished Brief Award winners, who included one recent WMU-Cooley graduate, were recognized for producing exceptional briefs while balancing busy caseloads. This year’s winners were all criminal-law practitioners, a first. They were (listing attendees first and then in alphabetical order):
- Brett DeGroff, Desiree Ferguson, and Michael L. Mittlestat (State Appellate Defender’s Office) (People v. Lockridge);
- Brent E. Morton and Douglas R. Lloyd (Eaton County Prosecutor’s Office) (People v. Uribe);
- Joshua R. Van Laan, Victor A. Fitz, and Eric J. Smith (Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office) (People v. Seewald).